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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Beyond the Cockpit: Patrick Carpentier on Danger, Success & Why He Races

Patrick Carpentier, racing the Indianapolis 500 in 2005, starting from pole in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series and winning five times in CART during one of its darkest times, is quite appreciative of his time in the spotlight.

Growing up in Quebec, Canada, the now-44- year-old made an unlikely return to the Sprint Cup stage this summer at Sonoma and Indianapolis, where the  2008 rookie ran for Go FAS Racing and its No. 32 Ford.

Following more than five years outside the world’s highest stock car racing seat, Carpentier had his share of difficulties in getting back in the swing of things. Above all, however, Carpentier saw the two-race deal as an opportunity to expand his resume just a little bit further.

Sitting down with Frontstretch before the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis in July, we spoke to Carpentier about his time in NASCAR, why he’s back and what he thinks about the current competition of the sport. Also, we took a leap back to his successful open wheel days where we conversed about the dangers of CART, how his mentality changed through the era and why the thrill of victory overshadowed all.

Zach Catanzareti, Frontstretch.com: When it comes to racing at Indianapolis, what are your thoughts about racing here? It’s obviously a very special place to you.

Patrick Carpentier: It is and it’s always been. Indy is a special place with the Indy 500 and the Brickyard, everybody who wins here is special. I’ve been here in many types of cars and it’s a fun place to be. Hopefully, we can get a good, fun weekend. It’s the last one for me, just came in for Can-Am. I did two races this year, Sonoma and here and that’s it for me this weekend.

Catanzareti: 2005 was a big year for you at this track, running the Indy 500. Comparing the build-up from this event to that one, does anything really compare?

Carpentier: It’s different with the 500 to this one. The 500 was actually the first time I got to race here and I was so impressed with the crowd, the people, the grandstands. I couldn’t believe it, it was like racing through a crowd a people.

It was very impressive. We had to come in by a helicopter because of too many people. It was a lot of fun. I know these [NASCAR] guys come in by helicopter but not me! The Brickyard, when I did it, I truly enjoyed it. We had a good race, finished 16th, so it was a good day.

Catanzareti: Did you ever envision yourself racing a stock car here?

Carpentier: I never did. The first time I did when I came into stock cars in 2008 and then I got to Daytona and I was coming out of pit lane and Tony Stewart was coming in, I couldn’t believe it. It was surreal that you’re with these guys.

 

(Photo: Logan Whitton/NKP)
Carpentier finished 34th in July’s Brickyard 400. (Photo: Logan Whitton/NKP)

Catanzareti: Your first race this year was at Sonoma and apparently you lost the air conditioning system in the car and you were very hot.

Carpentier: It was crazy. I’ve never been that hot in a racecar. [Laughs] It was something I will remember! I was like ‘Oh my god, what are you doing in these cars?’ And I couldn’t breathe, I thought I was going to pass out.

It was a different kind of weekend and I ended up running the whole race but had to stop in the pits and fix that so we lost some laps.

Catanzareti: Do you give credit to your personal fitness to suffering through that and not pulling over? 

Carpentier: Yeah, I’ve trained a lot. I’ve done a lot of cycling this summer, a lot of training. I even stopped drinking! Seriously, I really did. Unless you spend a lot of time in these cars, and drive them a lot, the way you drive them when you don’t get to do them often is just different. You’re just more tense or something is different. It’s just much harder than a Tony Stewart or a guy that’s always sitting in the car. Even if you train a lot, you don’t get to spend a lot of time sitting in the car. I thank Can-Am and Kappa and these guys, just to come in on a weekend like that, I’m not sure Ill do that again.

Catanzareti: Comparing stock cars to open wheel cars, that’s one thing you don’t have to worry about in the open wheel car.

Carpentier: Yeah, the wind is blowing at more than 200 mph so it’s not too bad. But inside the cockpit of a NASCAR car, it gets pretty hot. When the vent system broke, I didn’t have any air flowing inside the helmet so I just couldn’t breath.  I wasn’t tired physically, that was fine and I was OK a couple hours later like nothing happened. It got so hot that I couldn’t focus.

Catanzareti: Going back to your big season in 2008, can you break down the learning curve you had to go through?

Carpentier: It’s very different than anything I’ve ever done. The tracks are fast, the level of racing is unbelievable. Even for this team, I applaud what they do and how they do it because to follow up with the Hendricks and the Joe Gibbs’, big teams, they got so much resources and money that it’s so hard to compete.

BROOKLYN, MI - AUGUST 15: Patrick Carpentier, driver of the #10 Tow Truck In A Box Dodge, during practice for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series 3M Performance 400 at Michigan International Speedway on August 15, 2008 in Brooklyn, Michigan. (Photo by Geoff Burke/Getty Images for NASCAR)
Carpentier grabbed a career-best finish of 11th at Sonoma in 2009. (Photo Geoff Burke/Getty Images for NASCAR)

As a driver, you have to pretty much spend your whole life in it and just learn the cars from the small tracks around the country and learn how they work, the technical side of it, so you can direct the crew chief in the right direction.

That’s pretty much what it is. It was a big learning curve in 2008 and every time we stopped, the track changes so much in one race, every time you stop in the pits, it was so hard to tell the crew chief. He would be like ‘What do you need?!’ And I’m like ‘Um, speed.’

I remember a couple times, they gave me Kasey Kahne‘s setup and we were fast. But it didn’t last long because I couldn’t help them out to set it up in the right direction.

Catanzareti: What turned you on about NASCAR? Why did you join here in the first place?

Carpentier: Just the cars. I tested it and tried it at Montreal and my god I love driving these cars. In these cars, you really have to feather the throttle and to me, it was a big taxi cab on steroids. It was just a lot of fun and I liked it.

When I got the offer to do it, to be honest with you, I wish I would’ve gotten an offer to go into the XFINITY Series first and then climb my way up to Sprint Cup. No, I got straight into Sprint Cup which was too much, it was too hard.

Even doing this, what I’m doing now, it’s happening pretty fast inside the cockpit.

Catanzareti: Think back to that No. 10 Dodge, how the team treated you and how you enjoyed being with the team in your first season.

Carpentier: It was fun. I had some good guys on the team, Ray Evernham when he was there in the beginning helped me out a lot. Ray was a good guy and like he said in the beginning, he said if you hire this guy you need to sign him up for three years or don’t hire him because that’s what its going to take to learn it. He’s going to crash cars at first, maybe have some good performances from the second year and third year we’ll see what he’s made of.

That was kind of the philosophy. And then they let me go at the end of the first year and I thought we had a decent year. With the team we were, we had a pole position at Loudon, qualified fourth and missed the pole by thousandths of a second at Richmond, qualified fifth at Fontana. So any kind of track, we qualified decent. The results were not there necessarily, it was tough to finish. But I thought it was pretty good for a first year so I was very disappointed but that’s the way it goes.

Catanzareti: Was Loudon your favorite moment from that season?

Carpentier: It was. Richmond, I loved it. But Loudon was a lot of fun. Just to start the race up at the front there and [Kevin] Harvick was beside me, I gave him a break at Montreal when he raced the XFINITY race, I didn’t push him off the track. He gave me the favor back at Loudon, let me do a couple laps up front and then I let him by.

Catanzareti: Being back here, about five years since you’ve been in a Cup car, what got you back?

Carpentier: Yeah, on an oval it’s been five years. Well, these guys, they sponsor Jeffrey [Earnhardt], he’s a good guy. It’s a business that works in the US and Canada with the Spider bike and stuff they have. They’re growing the US market and just wanted someone from up north there to do a couple races for them.

LOUDON, NH - JUNE 29: Patrick Carpentier, driver of the #10 Berlin City Auto Group Dodge, waves to the crowd prior to the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series LENOX Industrial Tools 301 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway on June 29, 2008 in Loudon, New Hampshire. (Photo by Todd Warshaw/Getty Images for NASCAR)
Carpentier was the quickest man in NASCAR at New Hampshire in 2008. (Photo: Todd Warshaw/Getty Images for NASCAR)

Since they have Jeffrey all year long, Bobby Labonte on the superspeedways, I said ‘Yeah sure, I’ll try it.’ I’m a TV analyst up in Montreal, so we cover all the NASCAR stuff so I thought ‘Oh, a road course and an oval, so at least I’ll know what I’m talking about.’

So I’ll go do it, feel the cars, how they’ve changed. The last time I was in one was the Car of Tomorrow, which I called the big school bus. But these cars are amazing actually. They are very low, very responsive.

Catanzareti: After Montreal in 2011, retirement was the big word. You said you had trouble standing back from racing. Can you describe that time in your life?

Carpentier: It’s hard, it’s hard. All my life I’ve been racing, whether it’s NASCAR, Indy cars, anything, go karts, even speed skating at a young age we used to train down at Lake Placid and prepare for the winter racing.

It’s a heck of a change. I’m sure Jeff Gordon is similar. He’s done the TV analyst and commentary early on in the year and now he probably needs to do something and came back in the car. Sad for Dale [Earnhardt, Jr.] but I’m pretty sure, for Jeff, it’s a good challenge and fun to be driving again.

When you’ve done that all your life – I’ve been driving for 27 years years now – it’s very different. We got some real estate in Las Vegas and we take care of that. Luckily, I have some stuff I accumulated during the time I was racing, not a lot, but at least we get by.

It’s different and I’m just starting, actually, to get used to it.

Catanzareti: You and Jeff are in very similar air, he raced for a long time, did the analyst role and now he’s back for these couple weeks.

Carpentier: I look at it today and I’m like ‘Oh my god, what did you get yourself into here?’ I look at Jeff coming back just from last year and the way he’s talking about it, it’s tough. I’ve been off for a few months and I’m looking at that like ‘Oh my god, what are you doing here?’

We’ll see. We have to do the race on Sunday the best we can and hopefully we get a good ride. And that’s it. I’ve learned this weekend that that’s enough. You always love it. I have a passion for it and love driving these cars. But after that, that’s going to be it.

Catanzareti: No more opportunities past this one yet?

Carpentier: No, not at that level. It doesn’t make sense to me. I look at it this weekend as unique testing. You need to sit in the car all the time, you need to drive it.

Different series, yeah for sure. I would love to take it. The XFINITY Series I would do it. Sprint Cup, no, it’s a different level.

Catanzareti: What are your feeling toward the Cup Series? You’re back now, what has changed?

Carpentier: In Cup, a lot has changed. The level of competition is unbelievably high. It gets higher and tougher every year. The cars are high-tech. People think they use old technology and it’s not the case, man, it’s like Formula 1. They spend a lot of money, have a lot of engineers and they’re prepping these cars to the max within the rules they have.

That car has evolved so much since the Car of Tomorrow. I was actually glad I got in it and tried it.

Catanzareti: Switching to your open wheel side, you got to race on so many great tracks like Vancouver, Long Beach. What was the type of track that suited you when it came to those cars? Did you like street circuits?

Carpentier: No, actually, I liked the high-speed stuff, high-speed corners, fast. Laguna Seca, Watkins Glen, places like that. I love these kinds of tracks. High-speed road courses, basically.

Catanzareti: At a place like Laguna Seca, you had that big accident in 2000 there. How did that change your mentality when it came to racing? Was that a shot in the arm for you?

Carpentier: It was not. We won after that and we had fast cars, big teams seemed to always sit on pole there at Laguna Seca. No it was like ‘Oh my god, that was bad’ And then I get back in the car and started racing.

Back then, it was different. A lot of guys got bad injuries, died from it and cars were crazy fast back then. I remember when we got to Texas and they cancelled the race because we were pulling too many G-forces.

Catanzareti: At a track like Texas, what was it like to be on the edge?

Carpentier: It was crazy. It was so fast. I remember talking to Paul Tracy, a couple other guys, Tony Kanaan, and it was like ‘My god, can you see something or not?’ And they were like ‘No, man I can’t see.’

Paul Tracy told me he was just looking at the dash and almost crashed because I was already in the corner. Never in my life had I been around Texas and the track felt like there was no straightaway. We averaged in qualifying, I think it was 230 mph, we qualified outside pole. I remember that lap, I was wide open all the way around and couldn’t see a thing inside the car. I got loose in [Turns] 3 and 4 and the car got sideways [describes with his hands] and it came back to me. It was just luck because I was not quick enough to catch it.

By the time we got to race, they said, ‘No, no we cannot do that.’ We’re pulling more than seven G-forces combined.

Catanzareti: What does seven Gs feel like in a car?

Carpentier: It was like a video game, it was an arcade game. It was funny because I had surgery a couple weeks before, because I shattered my wrist, they screwed it together and said ‘Ah, go racing.’ I went back in the car and I was really, really dizzy every time I got out of the car. I had to sit down, I couldn’t walk.

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I thought it was because of the surgery. I kept my mouth shut because I wanted to race. When I learned that everybody was the same, that’s what it was. It was so fast. It was like pictures, the racetrack was like a whole bunch of pictures but it was not continuous, it was not flowing. Even your brain couldn’t process the images fast enough. We pulled so many Gs and it was so fast that I kept about three feet from the wall because I couldn’t see it. It was insane.

In my life, I haven’t experienced anything like that and I never have after that.

Catanzareti: It was an interesting time when it came to safety. You had a big accident at Road America, flipped many times. Looking back at it, what were thoughts toward the safety and how dangerous racing those cars were?

Carpentier: It was, but at the time, we didn’t know any better. I know they were trying to improve the safety and we didn’t have any safe walls on the track. We just hit the concrete – I remember at Fontana, I hit it in practice. [Alex] Zanardi did the same and I spent two days in the hospital. I woke up in the helicopter getting to the hospital and it was just brutal, it was crazy.

Greg [Moore] died at Fontana, Gonzalo [Rodriguez] died at Laguna Seca, got over the fence like I did but he passed away. At that time, it was: Shrug it off, go to bed, get it off your mind and go racing next week.

Catanzareti: Now when you look at what IndyCar does today with a lot more safety initiatives, you’ve been through those tough times so how do you look at it now today?

Carpentier: I’m happy. They have really evolved. Everybody has families and they want to go back to their kids and it’s a very important thing. Today they’re trying to work on the show, make it better, make the passing better, try to do everything to please the fans so they come to the track. It’s a different era than what it was before.

I remember when Indy cars split from Champ Car, it was a huge blow to that series. They are still working hard today to get over it.

Catanzareti: Greg Moore did pass away far too early. What do you remember from him, that weekend and how it all progressed?

Carpentier: It was a crazy weekend. It was a weird weekend, didn’t feel right from the get-go. It’s funny because it was often like that. It’s almost like life was trying to tell you something. Greg got in a crash on his pit bike, hit a car, damaged his thumb. They gave him some pills and he kept going. He already had a contract with Penske, a very lucrative contract, too. He didn’t have to do that [race after bike injury].

A few weeks before, there had been some shuffling inside the team and they took away his engineer away. He had been with Greg since Indy Lights and even earlier than that, he brought Greg up. And all these things came together and it just lost it in the race. I saw him coming in the mirrors, he started in the back and I could see he was coming. He was outside wide open.

John Cote INDYCARMedia
Carpentier later made a full-time IndyCar effort in 2005. (John Cote INDYCAR Media)

When he crashed, he always held it wide open, always rotated the car. I remember in Japan he did it a few times, rotated the car and didn’t hit the wall. That time, he was coming up to speed and that’s why the blow was so violent, he held the throttle wide open and the car just rotated but kept accelerating. So he hit that wall so hard, it was like an explosion.

The next lap, I came around, I looked at the back straight and we couldn’t tell which car it was. So I looked at the tower and I saw Greg’s number starting to go down [the running order pylon] and we knew who was in that car was severely injured or died from it.

Funny enough, just before they went back to green flag, my car had an electrical issue. Everybody thought the team pulled me in to stop, no, it just had an electrical problem and it just shut down. That was it. Just before I passed pit entrance, the engine just shut down. I tried to restart it and there was nothing and I just coasted to my pit box and once I got there, the team said ‘Well, we’re not going to fix it.’

I got out and that’s when I learned Greg was in very bad shape.

Catanzareti: How did that effect your mindset going forward when it came to what you do?

Carpentier: It did, it did. Funny enough, a lot of guys passed away and I remember that year I moved to Vegas from Indianapolis. It was just a weird winter. It was one of the toughest things I’ve ever experienced in racing. It was like ‘My god, that’s it. Done.’ We never thought that Greg could die doing this. Greg could get out of everything, he was super fast, super human. He was the best at everything. It was a bit of a shock.

What was bad, I think, is if you go back racing the next weekend, then you get it out of your mind, go back in it and go back racing. But that was it, that was the last race of the season and all winter we had to live with that. After that, it was different.

Catanzareti: You never thought about ending your career?

Carpentier: No, you never did  think about that back then. But one thing is for sure, when I got to the IRL – they are much safer nowadays – and saw Kenny Brack and these guys get injured like that. I did a year and said, after I saw [Ryan] Briscoe crash at Chicago sitting in the grass like split in half and I could see his legs in the grass. He was lucky, I think just broken shoulders.

That’s when I said ‘That’s it. Indy cars, that’s it for me.’ I stopped after that and I’ve never been in one since.

Catanzareti: On the positive side, your first win came at Michigan, it was an incredible finish. How was that race for you when you just edged it out?

Carpentier: It was amazing. It took so many years to get a win, it took me a long time. I was second, third, this and that and we couldn’t get a win. Often, it has to do with confidence. Back then, it was just tough. I finally got over the hump and I remember I was sponsored by Player’s at the time and the car was blue and white. They had all the blue champagne ready to go, they must’ve been there for the last two years because they’ve been waiting for that one for a long time.

After that, the wins started coming in, the podiums. It was a lot of fun, what a great race, it was a good show at the end of the race. We had a caution and ended up winning it.

Catanzareti: You got your last couple wins at Laguna Seca. How do you look back on those final victories and those last times you got to enjoy that series?

Carpentier: I loved it. The car was amazing. For some reason, the Laguna Seca track suited me, it was flowing perfectly for my driving style, I knew every inch of the track, the tricks. I don’t know, I just felt so comfortable on that track. It was good to get the wins there.

Sometimes I wish throughout my career – I was pretty nice to everyone – but sometimes I wish I would’ve been a bit tougher to demand what I needed. Just more confidence, everything comes with confidence. Even though we had the wins and top three in the championship a few times, I think just a little bit more, not arrogance, would’ve brought me a championship.

Catanzareti: You drove side-by-side with a fighter jet on a big runway. What was that like inside the driver’s seat?

Carpentier: It was pretty cool. That engine must’ve had 1200 horsepower. I remember at the time we had 850 to 900 horsepower. Guys built the engine, took the pop-off valve off and cranked that turbo up. It was insane. It had so much power, I couldn’t get off the line. I was impressed by those fighter jets, they get off the line fast. That thing is heavy and, like the guy told me, if you see I start getting in front of you, you need to turn right. He said to go in the grass, turn right, go somewhere else. The thrust from the engine is just going to blow you away.

It’s funny because he saw me, I kept the wheels spinning, I started in second gear and I was just like [wheel-spin sound effects]. He started to get in front of me, he saw me and came off throttle. That gave me a chance to come back beside him and then he went back full throttle after that because he would’ve blown me away.

It was amazing. He got off the ground and was up in the air and I could see him on the corner of the mirror and he couldn’t catch me. I was like ‘Holy cow, these cars are fast.’ We rode 6,000 feet of the runway all the way to the cables at the end. At the end he just took off, got to me and passed me.

Catanzareti: Whose idea was that? Why were you doing that?

Carpentier: It was a promo from the Canadian Army. They have a show every year, they bring people out and they promoted it like crazy. Player’s at the time was a little like Red Bull, they liked extreme stuff. So they wanted that in the show and we did it.

Catanzareti: In your career, or maybe here in NASCAR being US-dominated, did you ever feel like you were racing for Canada? Did you ever feel it was a responsibility for you to represent your country? Or was it never in your mind?

Carpentier: It was, but not like that. It’s funny because my life has always been split between Canada and the US. I have an accent, but I’ve lived more than half my life in the US. I’ve lived 18 years in the US full time and I’ve been back and forth with Canada. I’ve never wanted to go racing in Europe because I loved America and I wanted to race here, live here. And I always have.

I have US citizenship and have Canadian citizenship, my kids were born in the US and we always split between the two. I am as proud as being a US citizen as I am a Canadian citizen.

I got my US citizenship, I passed the test and everything and she goes ‘On your car you’ll have an American flag will you?’ Yeah, I’ll have both and she was like ‘OK!’ And I always had the Canadian on one side and US on the other side.

Catanzareti: Did you ever think about joining Formula 1?

Carpentier: Never. It’s weird, huh? Because he come from F1 in Canada with Gilles Villeneuve and Jacques Villeneuve and I never have. I never had interest to go over to Europe.

I lived in California, a lot of people from the US helped me, they brought me up and they were from here in California. I lived there for a while, lived in Indy, lived in Vegas. I never had that much of an interest.

Catanzareti: You think you would’ve been able to be competitive over there if you got with a right team?

Carpentier: Oh yeah, I think so. I don’t think F1 guys have anything over what you see here in Sprint Cup Series or Indy cars. They are good guys. Back then, it was a bit different. I think they were a lot more specialized. The F1 car was a beast, it had huge tires, a lot of power, no traction control. And a lot of stuff that’s different nowadays.

WATKINS GLEN, NY - AUGUST 07: (L-R) Patrick Carpentier, driver of the #26 Air Guard Chevrolet, talks with Ron Fellows, driver of the #36 Tommy Baldwin Racing Chevrolet, and Max Papis, driver of the #13 GEICO Toyota, during qualifying for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Heluva Good! Sour Cream Dips at Watkins Glen International on August 7, 2010 in Watkins Glen, New York. (Photo by John Harrelson/Getty Images for NASCAR)
Though Carpentier never found F1, guys like Max Papis did their time in the world’s largest motor sport. (Photo by John Harrelson/Getty Images for NASCAR)

I remember just watching they have the Race of Champions at the end of the year with different cars and they bring all the top drivers in the world. F1 guys, Sprint Cup. I remember Carl Edwards went there and he had a race against [Michael] Schumacher and it was funny because the guys in Europe were like ‘Oh my god, this is going to be humiliating for Edwards. Oh this is going to be tough.’

And then Edwards spanked Michael Schumacher [laughs]. I loved Schumacher because after the race, they interviewed him ‘Oh, what was the problem?’ And he just went like ‘He just kicked my ass, I have nothing to say.’

I don’t say Carl was better than Michael or anything like that, but they’re are as good of drivers. I think these cars here are hard to drive or harder than an F1 car.

Catanzareti: Who would you say was your favorite or least favorite competitor? From the first day to now, who were your favorite competitors who really pushed you on the track?

Carpentier: Honestly, that’s a hard question to answer because I think every series, if you want to win, you have to work so hard at it. Be the best. The best drivers always seem to end up with the best teams. And you need luck. I’ll be really, really honest, you need luck. You need to be at the right place, have the right performance at the right time. And that’s it, that’s what it is.

Whether it’s racing, hockey, you just need to have that. Every series, if you want to win, it’s as hard as one another.

Catanzareti: What’s you favorite thing to do outside the track?

Carpentier: I do a lot of cycling. I do a lot of snowboarding with my kids in the winter,.I love that. That’s my favorite sport outside the track. Outside of racing, cycling is cool, swimming, I love it with the kids. Now, I’m building an older car, it’s a Beatle and I’m putting a lot of horsepower in it, lowering it and that’s what I do when I have spare time.

Catanzareti: How would you like to be remembered in your racing career?

Carpentier: For me, I’ll be honest, I haven’t accomplished what Jeff Gordon has or Stewart or some of these guys have. But I always had a wonderful time doing it. I got some wins, raced at the top level for a long time, made a living out of it, it gave me a good life and I still benefit from it today. I was one of the very fortunate ones to have along career at the professional level.

I don’t know, remembered as a guy that enjoyed life and was kind to people, especially the fans all my life. I think the guys need to remember that, because once those grandstands are empty, you don’t have a sport anymore.

[Below is a video capture of our conversation with Patrick Carpentier.]

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